Cinemas are open once again and we are delighted to see some fabulous family films heading for the big screen. Films to look forward to include bunny-hopping sequel Peter Rabbit 2, new animations Felix and the Hidden Treasure, Earwig and the Witch, and Demon Slayer:Mugen Train. There is non-stop action in Fast and Furious 9 plus Disney’s 101 Dalmations origin story spin-off Cruella starring Emma Stone.
The below film guides are written by Mike Davies especially with families and kids in mind. Everything from small scale films to great blockbusters for all the family PLUS trailers for upcoming films! Please note that not all 12A films are appropriate for younger children. Let’s Go With The Children offers a guide to what’s suitable for family viewing.
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Having given Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent a sympathetic origin story makeover, Disney now applies the same spin to 101 Dalmatians villain Cruella deVil with a terrific cocktail of The Devil Wears Prada and The Joker mingled with a touch of Oliver Twist. Set in 70s London, it opens with a spot on refined English accent voiceover from Emma Stone, who takes on the title role announcing her death, and proceeds to a flashback prologue in which, en route to London to start a new life after being expelled from school following a series of incidents for which she was wrongly blamed, a stopover is made at Hellman Hall, a sprawling mansion where, sneaking in to watch a fashion show, Estella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland), a non-conformist young girl with half black and half white hair, witnesses her mother (Emily Beecham) pushed to her death from the clifftop by the three Dalmatians belonging the owner of the hall. Losing her mother’s heirloom necklace in the process, Estella, who’s caused havoc at the show, runs away with her dog Buddy, winding up in London where she’s taken in by a couple of young thieves, Jasper (Ziggy Gardner) and Horace (Joseph McDonald), and, with the help of Buddy and Horace’s one-eyed dog Wink, becomes part of the gang, pulling off a series of pickpocketing and robberies.
Cut then to the 70s as Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) wangle Estella, who dyed her hair red, a birthday present job at prestigious fashion emporium Liberty’s where’s she hoping to launch her career as a fashion designer, only to find herself a skivvy cleaning the toilets and bullied by her snobby boss. However, drunkenly redesigning a window display catches the attention of imperious, narcissistic famed fashion icon The Baroness (Emma Thompson, gloriously devouring the scenery) who hires her as part of her team.
Suffice to say, it’s not long before Emma realises it was The Baroness’s dogs who pushed her mother to her death and for which she’s always blamed herself, and with the help of Jasper and Horace, sets out to get revenge and stage a heist to retrieve the necklace, creating her alter-ego as Cruella, a punky fashion designer upstart who, making a dazzling first entrance on the scene, proceeds to upstage The Baroness and grab the headlines, causing sales to plummet. However, there are further revelations ahead, the first being the discovery that it was The Baroness who actually responsible for her mother’s death, ratcheting up her thirst for vengeance, with her single-minded pursuit and new control-freak attitude causing a rift between herself and her partners in crime. But that’s not the biggest twist.
It offers a sympathetic view of how Cruella became the sociopath in the Dalmatians movies, and Stone seizes the part’s strutting performance and sharp lines with magnetising relish while the screen’s filled with a series of eye-popping costume designs and extravagant edgy fashion displays designed to torment and humiliate The Baroness as it builds to the final showdown. With a support cast that includes Mark Strong as The Baroness’s valet with a secret, John McRea as a flamboyant vintage fashion shop owner who becomes part of the grand revenge plan and Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Anita Darling, one of Estella’s early schoolfriends now working as newspaper fashion photographer, and an inspired soundtrack that ranges from The Doors, Nina Simone, Ken Dodd, The Clash and, naturally, The Stones’ Sympathy For The Devil (the film also explaining the origin of the name de Vil).
It’s hugely entertaining fun that, like Maleficent, carves out its own identity while nodding to its source material (don’t miss the mid-credits sequence involving The Baroness’s former lawyer, Roger, now a songwriter, and his wife Anita and a gift of two spotty pups), leaving you eagerly anticipating to see where her story goes from here. 134 mins
Felix and the Hidden Treasure (U)
A French-Canadian animation dubbed into English, this follows 12-year-old Felix who, when his mother takes a long-deserved three-day cruise ship holiday, sneaks of with his cat, who thinks it’s a dog, in search of his father, Jack, who disappeared some years ago when his ship sank. Felix is convinced he’s still alive and persuades elderly Captain Tom, a retired fisherman and one of his dad’s old friends, to take him to Darkshadow Island near to where he believes the boat went down. Once there, they discover a secret community headed up by a woman called Morgäa, a megalomaniac who, aided by her unformed army, is engaged in a scheme involving shady investors, treasure and the quest for eternal youth, and who, it turns out, has a connection to Tom.
The film is always busy, juggling three separate storylines, Felix on the island, his mom on her cruise, and back home, his aunt back in Quebec struggling to look after his baby sister and get her to talk as well as a pushy TV star who wants to buy the house and won’t take no for an answer.
Mixing action (Felix takes on the henchmen with his catapult) and comedy in equal measure, and in an amusing spin on the usual seadog clichés, it’s Tom’s parrot Squawk that has one leg and an eyepatch, this might not be up there in the elite animation leagues, but it’s fast and fun enough to keep the youngsters entertained. 90mins
Maya The Bee: The Golden Orb (U)
A third Australian animation outing for brave little bee Maya (Coco Jack Gillies) and timid best friend Willi (Benson Jack Anthony), this kicks off with an exuberant Maya determined to wake the hive to mark the first day of Spring. Something that, inadvertently, takes the pair to a community of sleeping glow-worms who stampede into the hive and cause the precious sun stone to break into pieces. Banned from any more adventures, they’re despatched by the Queen to collect sap, except Maya overhears that she plans to separate them when they return – unless something incredibly special changes her mind.
And so it is that May and Willi run into an ant fleeing from a group of beetles who asks them to safely deliver his precious package, a golden or, to the Greenleaf ant colony while he distracts the pursuers. And so, joined by bumbling soldier ants Arnie and Barnie, off they set on their mission. It turns out the orb is actually an egg which hatches to reveal the ant princess, which Maya names Schmoosh, and who Bumbulus, the beetles’ leader who has a habit of bursting into song, wants to kidnap so he can drive the ants away from Bonsai Peak and rule the mountain himself.
As with the previous films, its bright, breezy and colourful, here carrying a theme of responsibility and mutual tolerance (and finding your inner courage), as well a joke about changing a baby ant’s nappy, while the fact that everyone is scared of being next on the food chain (there’s a scary bird attack on the ant colony) adds a touch of darkness to things. Pre-schoolers should get a buzz. 88 mins
Earwig and the Witch (PG)
The first Studio Ghibli animation on four years, here dubbed into English, is also its first to use 3D CG rather than hand drawn animation, is an adaptation of a posthumous children’s book by the late Diana Wynne Jones (who also wrote Howl’s Moving Castle) which, set in 90s England, tells how Earwig is dumped on an orphanage doorstep as a baby by her motorbike riding mother (Kacey Musgraves), who’s on the run from whoever is inside the beaten up yellow car chasing her and leaves a note that reads “Got the other 12 witches all chasing me. I’ll be back when I’ve shook them off.”
The baby is taken in by the friendly staff and named Erica Wigg (Taylor Paige Henderson), growing up happy and best friends with a young boy she calls Custard (Logan Hannan), enjoying the chef’s shepherd’s pie and generally having fun as she manages to manipulate everyone into doing what she wants. But then, to her horror, she’s suddenly taken away by a strange looking couple to live in their cottage. Her foster parents turn out to be an unpleasant witch called Bella Yaga (Vanessa Marshall), who makes spells to order, and a brooding, pointy-eared towering figure known only as The Mandrake (Richard E Grant) who is ministered to by spinning little demons who bring him his favourite meals. Earwig’s informed that she’s there to serve as Yaga’s helper in her filthy laboratory, grinding rat-bones, slicing snake-skins and fetching the ingredients for her spells, something she agrees to on condition that Yaga teaches her magic. Naturally, that’s not about to happen so, instead, Earwig takes it upon herself to learn, assisted by Yaga’s talking cat familiar Thomas (Dan Stevens), starting with a spell to protect them both from the worms that Yaga uses as a punishment and then literally giving her an extra pair of hands.
Earwig also tries to uncover the mystery of a cassette tape with her name on it, and why The Mandrake plays rock music in his magically hidden room. It’s not spoiling things to say that both he and Yaga used to be part of a rock group called Earwig, with her mom (cue assorted flashbacks to them on stage), but as to what happened and why the film keeps you guessing.
Considerably different to past films by the studio with its more contemporary look and with inspirations borrowed from the likes of Harry Potter and Hotel Transylvania, not to mention a big dose of Roald Dahl, storywise it’s something of a confused muddle and it sort of just stops leaving all manner of loose ends hanging. Even so, there’s a lot here to keep its young audiences bewitched. 82 mins
Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway (PG)
There’s a curious case of having your cake and eating it to this sequel based around the Beatrix Potter characters in that, now married to McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson wildly overacting), Bea (Rose Byrne) is approached by a smooth-talking major publisher, Nigel Basil-Jones (David Oyelowo), who wants to bring her stories to a wider audience, but to do so would mean departing from their simple innocence, such as having them wear t-shirts, going surfing or even into outer space. Bea is seduced by the idea, especially after he gives her a snazzy car, but McGregor feels this is betraying her principles and the characters, which, of course, are based on the animals on and around the farm where they live.
And yet the film itself seeks to do the very same thing for the same reasons, exaggerating it all into a frantic caper movie based, rather obviously, on Oliver Twist (in case you miss it, Rose starts reading Charles Dickens). In his game plan, the publisher wants to give the various characters defined personalities, with Peter (James Corden) being cast as the Bad Seed (with, self-referential joke, an annoying voice), reinforcing his feeling that, despite a tentative peace between him and McGregor, he’s always getting blamed for everything by McGregor, even when he’s not bene up to mischief. So, when everyone troops off to Gloucester (and if you think this means introducing Potter’s The Tailor Gloucester into the plot, pat yourself on the back), he takes off my himself and runs into Barnabas (Lennie James), an old friend of his father’s who’s stealing fruit from the market and invites him to become part of his gang. So, deciding that if he’s always going to be seen as the villain of the piece, then he might as well be, Peter joins up with Barnabas’s crew, including masterplanner Samuel Whiskers and rough and ready felines Tom Kitten and Mittens (Hayley Attwell).
After showing Peter the ropes in how to get yourself adopted by humans so you can raid their food cupboard, Barnabas announces his big plan is to steal the dried fruit from Gloucester’s weekly market, persuading Peter to rope in all his friends, Flopsy (Margot Robbie) and Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki), Cottontail (Aimee Horne), Mrs Tiggy-Winkle (Sia), Jemima Puddle-Duck (Byrne), Pigling Bland (Ewen Leslie), Mr. Jeremy Fisher (Gleeson), Tommy Brock (Sam Neill) and even Felix D’eer (Christian Gazel), to help pull it off.
Throwing in assorted amusing moments along the way (Cottontail having his first sugar high on jelly beans – or the hard stuff a Whiskers calls them), McGregor rolling down the hill, the old gag about standing on each other’s shoulders in a raincoat to pass off as one person, D’eer on a parachute) as well as a car chase, it naturally spins a message about family, friendship, being true to yourself and judging others by your preconceptions of them as it heads towards its rather rushed big finish (Bea, Peter and McGregor having to rescue the others from their assorted fates after being sold on by the local pet shop). McGregor even discovers Peter can talk.
While doing an equally good job of integrating the CGI animals alongside the actors, it lacks the charm and sweetness of Paddington and, like the books Basil-Jones wants to publish has very little in common with Potter’s stories, but the slapstick should keep the youngsters happy enough and, it has to be said, it does have a very clever spin on the obligatory lavatory gag. 93 minutes.
Godzilla vs Kong (12A)
A thundering welcome back to the cinemas that looks to offer spectacular popcorn entertainment without challenging the brain cells (other than trying to make sense of some of the plot strands), set not long after the events in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, this reunites the titular two titans who last faced off in 1963 Japanese film King Kong vs. Godzilla.
As the film opens, to keep him safe from his scaly arch-enemy, everyone’s favourite oversized gorilla is being kept in a large dome on Skull Island, designed to resemble his natural habitat and being monitored by Monarch in the shape of Doctor Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) whose adopted deaf mute daughter Jia (Kaylee Hottle) has struck up a bond with the giant ape and, spoiler alert, can who can communicate with him through sign language. Not stupid, Kong has sussed this isn’t his actual home, making his point by throwing a tree through the electronic net covering his habitat.
Meanwhile, having been off the radar for some years, Godzilla, formerly seen as the planet’s protector, suddenly reappears, attacking the Florida base of the high tech global corporate Apex Cybernetics for, it would seem, no apparent reason. As Dr. Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler’) succinctly puts it by way of stating the obvious, “Godzilla is out there and he’s hurting people and we don’t know why!” His daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) is, however, convinced Apex are up to no good and, with the reluctant help of her nerdy techie teen friend Josh (Julian Dennison), recruits conspiracy podcast theorist Bernie (Brian Tyree Henry), a former Apex engineer, to sneak in and find out what’s going on.
Drawing the storylines together, Apex CEO Walter Simmons (Demian Bichir) persuades scientist Dr. Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgard), controversial for his hollow Earth theory that giant creatures are living within the planet’s core, to head up a mission to solve the energy crisis and journey into this world in one of Apex’s new specially designed vehicles. To this end, Lind persuades Andrews to go along with a plan to transport a sedated Kong by sea back to his natural home, away from Godzilla. Needless to say, Godzilla attacks the fleet leading to the first clash between the two juggernauts, with Kong not coming off best.
At this point, the narrative jumps back and forth between Lind, Andrews and Jia journeying into the world within with Kong, Simmons’s daughter accompanying them in another craft with clearly an agenda of her and her father’s own, while, back at Apex, Madison and co are snooping around and discovering just what Simmons is up to, winding up in Hong Kong where another slug fest between the monsters takes place and a third techno titan enters the equation in a battle for supremacy.
Lurching from one big exposition scene to the next, punctuated by mass destruction battles, the human cast take it and the arch dialogue seriously so that audiences don’t have to, but, once in gear, director Adam Wingard drives it all along at a furious pace, investing Kong with a hitherto little seen humanity and personality and playfully peppering the soundtrack with numbers like The Air That I Breathe. A massive adrenaline rush after those months cooped up, indulge at will. 113 mins.
The Mitchells v The Machines (PG)
Produced by the team behind The Lego Movie and Into The Spider-Verse and sharing the same anarchic humour, this is a hugely entertaining fun animation with a solid message about embracing your inner weirdo and a cautionary tale about letting technology control you rather than the other way around.
When Mark Bowman, head of an Apple-like tech company, introduces his latest invention, an upgrade white humanoid robot servant version of his AI smartphone assistant, he’s not prepared for the Siri-like PAL (voiced by Olivia Colman) to take revenge for being consigned to history by taking control of the robots (who resemble Star Wars’ battle droids) and, Terminator-style, setting out to rid the planet of all humans. She’s not, however, reckoned on the Mitchells.
An oddball family headed up by technophobe Rick (Danny McBride), who wishes everyone would leave their cellphones for at least a few minutes and actually talk to each other round the dinner table, and super-positive protective wife Linda (Maya Rudolph), they have two kids, young dinosaur-obsessed Aaron (Rianda) who randomly calls people in the phone book to talk about them, and teenage Katie (Abbi Jacobson), an aspiring filmmaker who, on the back of her home videos featuring their cross-eyed pug Monchi, has landed a place at film school in California. However, her relationship with her dad is prickly since he just doesn’t get her and, for reasons explained later, tends to speak of potential failure rather than potential success.
Trying to make up for his comments and behaviour, Rick arranges to take the whole family on a road trip to Katie’s college in their battered orange station wagon and, stopping off at a rundown dinosaur attraction en route, they find themselves at the centre of the worldwide robot attack, rounding up humans and sending them off to their Silicon Valley HQ in flaying green boxes. And so it is the Mitchells end up as the last humans not in captivity and, with the aid of two robots (Fred Armisen, Beck Bennett) whose programming has been send into a spin by being unable to decide if Monchi is a dog, a pig or a loaf of bread, they set out to save the world.
It’s a silly as it sounds and all concerned revel in the opportunity to go wild, both in the use of the animation, which at times includes real YouTube clips as well as cartoon drawings of the family and their escapades, and in a non-stop barrage of gags, none of which miss the target, along with any number of energetic action sequences, including a showdown with the world’s biggest Furby in a shopping mall and Linda letting loose her inner Mulan against PAL’s killer robots.
Never losing sight of its central theme of family bonds, father-daughter in particular, it rattles along with unflagging energy and a support cast that includes John Legend and Chrissy Teigen as the Mitchells’ supercool neighbours, this is an absolute joy. 113 mins.
Raya and the Last Dragon (PG)
Disney’s first Southeast Asian heroine makes her debut in this stirring animated adventure set in a mythical land in the ancient time of dragons and which serves up an inspirational message about the need for and power of trust.
Taking the shape of a dragon the map, Kumundra was once a united land, but, drawn perhaps by growing discontent among the peoples from its different regions, there came the monstrous Druun, a plague of tornado-like creatures that turned people to stone. In one last valiant effort, the remaining dragons who protected the land combined their power in a gemstone which, before they too were petrified, they entrusted to Sisu who used it to destroy the Druun but who, apparently perished herself in doing so. Leap forward 500 years and the land has become fragmented, the regions, representing their position on the map, now divided into Heart, the densely forested Spine, market-town Talon, the desert wasteland Tail and, isolated and protected from the Druun by surrounding waters, Fang, with the dragon stone and its remaining magic safely protected by Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), leader of the Heart and father to young Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) who, in the opening scenes, earns her right to become one of its guardians. Beja’s dream is to reunite Kumandra, to which end he invites the different tribes to a feast and calls upon them to join together once again. However, duped into trusting Namaari (Gemma Chan), the princess daughter of the Fang leader, Raya innocently leads her to the stone, only to be double-crossed, the gem broken into five pieces and stolen by the other tribes and, in turn, seeing the return of the Druun.
Saved by her father before he’s turned to stone, the story moved on six years as the now grown up Raya, dressed in flowing cape, carrying a pretty impressive sword and accompanied by her now equally giant pillbug Tuk Tuk (a sort of armadillo that can curl into a ball which she rides like a spherical horse), is searching the land, seeking to find Sisu who, legend has it, still lives at the end of one of the many rivers, and recover the other gem fragments to destroy the Druun, restore her father to life and, possibly fulfill his dream.
Finally, she does indeed reawaken Sisu (an exuberant Awkafina), who turns out be a somewhat ditzy glowing blue teen dragon (“I gotcha girl. WHO’S your dragon?”) proud of her swimming skills. Unfortunately, Raya’s been followed by Namaari who has her own quest to recover all the gem shards to keep Fang safe and so the film unfolds into a sort of Tomb Raider road movie as Raya and Sisu, who can take on human form, joining forces with representatives from the different tribes, first young shrimp seller Boun (Izaac Wang) aboard his floating restaurant followed, after accompanying battles and escapades, a con baby and her three thieving monkeys and one-eyed warrior Tong (Benedict Wong), all of whom have lost family to the Druun, gathering the shards until only the one in Fang remains to be recovered. Not that Namaari is going to let her get her hands on that.
Deftly mixing action, emotion and humour, the film rattles along, addressing such themes as greed, environmental crises, family and friendship before, prompted by the optimistic Sisu, finally returning to the central message that if you’re going to overcome shared problems, then you need to get past your differences and have trust to work together for a common cause. All that and some farting beetles for the kids.
Flora & Ulysses (PG)
Narrating her own story, ten-year-old Flora (an ultra-cute Matilda Lawler) is a comic book fan (mostly Marvel, it seems) who lives with her award-winning (a Jack and Rose statue a la Titanic) romantic novelist mother Phyllis (Alyson Hannigan) who has hit a creative block since separating from husband George (Ben Schwartz), a comic book artist who fell into a slump when he couldn’t get his characters, such as Incandesto (who Flora fantasises along with his sidekicks), published and now works a store shelf-stocker. Trying to get her mojo back, Phyllis has bought an old-fashioned typewriter hoping it will help write the new novel, the deadline for which is looming. It will prove important in a very different way.
Flora (who actually looks like a young Hannigan) is first seen looking to sell her comics stash, disillusioned that superheroes never turn up in the real world when you need them, becoming a self-described cynic with the motto “Do not hope. Observe.” Her favourite book is Terrible Things Can Happen to You. However, her life changes when she rescues a squirrel that’s been sucked up by a neighbour’s remote outdoor vacuum, giving it mouth-to-mouth to bring it back to life. Naming him Ulysses, she takes the rodent home where he proves to be a rather special squirrel, typing out a poem note (“holy unanticipated occurrences!” declares Flora) and proving precisely the bush-tailed superhero she needs in her life.
Naturally, there needs to be a nemesis which, rather inevitably, proves to be the town’s squirrel-obsessed animal control officer (Danny Pudi) who enters the picture after Ulysses causes chaos at a diner, leading to panic cries of rabies. Pursuing a storyline in which he plays a crucial role in bringing Flora’s parents back together, rekindling their personal and professional spark, it also introduces a support cast of eccentrics such as George’s wise and kindly neighbour Dr. Meacham (Anna Deavere Smith) and Flora new friend, a British boy called William (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) who’s been dumped there for the summer after being diagnosed with hysterical blindness following an incident he’s rather not discuss and who provides much of the comedy seeing via echolocation by making little chirps and usefully having “a knack for absorbing short falls.” Plus a psychotic rangy cat.
Partly about opening yourself up to the magic that surrounds you, it’s a delightful good hearted affair, both amusing and touching, with plenty of action sequences such as Ulysses’s rescues and the scene where Flora and her father break into the animal pound to stop him being euthanised, to keep it rolling along. Brilliant CGI brings a very realistic Ulysses to life and infuses him with real character, which further adds to the chemistry with Lawler, the silliness guarantees to keep the kids happy while director Lena Khan throws in plenty for the grown-ups too, ranging from a soundtrack that classics by Cat Stevens and Tom Jones to such film nods as ET and even a sly reference to Apocalypse Now. An utter joy.
Penguin Bloom (PG)
In 2013, holidaying with her photographer husband Cam (Andrew Lincoln) and three young sons in Thailand, Sam Bloom (Naomi Watts), a 41-year-old from Sydney with a love of surfing, swimming and bicycling, fell 20 foot when a rotten wooden rail on a tower balcony gave way, leaving her paraplegic below the chest, confined to bed and a wheelchair.
Shortly after returning from hospital, back home in Australia, her eldest son, Noah (Griffin Murray-Johnston) found an injured baby magpie and took it back to the house to be cared for, naming it Penguin on account of its black and white colouring. In pain and consumed with depression at feeling she was now worth nothing, especially as mother, Sam was initially reluctant to have any involvement, but was eventually won over by the bird’s persistence and charisma, becoming engaged in looking after it (if she couldn’t care for the kids, she could care for the bird) until it was able to fly and, as such, finding inspiration to rise above her own injuries and take metaphorical wing herself.
Based on Bloom’s own story as told in the book of the same title by Cameron Bloom and Bradley Trevor Greive, narrated by Noah, who provides the backstory and exposition, the film isn’t subtle about its symbolism (at one point she pushes a jar of honey – the family kept bees – on to the floor representing her shattered life), but its story of a family recovering from tragedy – including Noah’s feeling of guilt for taking his mother up the tower –and is believably told without melodrama or sentimentality and, aided greatly but the beautiful Australian scenery has both charm and inspiration with a wide appeal, while the performances, which include Jacqi Weaver as Sam’s mother, are solid throughout. Although often upstaged by the various birds playing Penguin who have an endearing cheeky charm as they squawk and totter around the house, bonding with one of the boys’ raggy dolls and snuggling up to Sam (which actually happened), Watts is especially good as the woman who goes from the depths of despair to finding meaning in her new life, eventually persuaded to take up kayaking and, as the end credits tell us, going on to represent Australia in the para canoeing and para surfing world championships and winning gold in 2018 and 2020 at the World Para Surfing Championships. 95 mins
Directed by Pete Docter, this is up there with the very best of Pixar’s animation, a film which, like Inside Out and Up, offers different levels for both children and adult audiences with its cocktail of absorbing narrative, physical comedy, emotional depth and profound intelligence as it addresses, basically, the meaning of life.
Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) is a bespectacled, New York middle-school music teacher with dreams of being a jazz piano player like his father, much to the disapproval of his seamstress mother who just wants him to get a job with security. As fate would have it, both opportunities come on the same day. He’s awarded a full time post at school and, thanks to an old pupil, also gets to audition tinkling the ivories for jazz saxophonist star Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). She offers him a place with her quartet for that night’s jazz club show, but, as he’s walking home, high on happiness, he falls down a manhole and finds himself a blue blob no nose soul on, quite literally, a stairway to heaven, although here referred to as the Great Beyond. It’s an inter-dimensional realm managed by shape shifting incorporeal beings which look like that 2-dimensional Cubic drawings and are called Jerry (variously voiced by, among others, Alice Braga, Wes Studi and Richard Ayoade), where as yet unborn souls are assigned personality traits at the You Seminar before earning their spark, or purpose, that will give them a pass to begin a life on Earth. Mistakenly assumed to be a mentor, Joe’s assigned to 22 (Tina Fey), a troublesome soul in waiting with a voice “that annoys people “who, despite the best efforts of Mother Teresa, Copernicus and Gandhi, has no desire to be born at all or transition to Earth. However, with Joe’s body in a coma in hospital, he’s determined to return and, with the help of a Moonwind (Graham Norton), an astral plane pirate captain soul whose human body is aged hippy guru sign spinner on Earth, so he does, except, 22 accidentally dragged along, Joe ends up in the body of Mr. Mittens, the therapy cat, and 22 in his. Now, 22 discovering living isn’t as terrible as she’d imagined, the reluctant buddies must embark on an existential fish-out-of-water quest to switch their souls before 7pm so he can play the gig, but, meanwhile, finding himself one short, soul counter Jerry (Rachel House) is on Joe’s trail to fulfil his quota.
Echoing elements of What Dreams May Come as well as Pixar’s own Wreck It Ralph, it’s a spellbinding film, funny and moving by turn, filled with such wonderful set pieces as 22 as Joe’s visit to a barbershop which speaks about finding happiness in what you do even it wasn’t what you original dream and how obsession can cut you off from having a life.
Rich with a seamlessly integrated jazz score (Joe’s talent for improvisation serving him well away from the piano too), it’s as vivid in detail and colour as it is profound in its philosophising on what constitutes the essence of out very soul as well as pointed observations such as “You can’t crush a soul here. That’s what life on Earth is for!” In a virtual Disney heresy, as Joe comes to learn his true talent might be as a teacher not a musician, it also says that, sometimes, achieving your dream might not be all you hoped for. But that, as Soul so poignantly observes, is what life is all about. 100 mins
Wonder Woman 1984 (12A)
The biggest superhero movie of 2020, again directed by Patty Griffin, this is undeniably good fun and comes with a solid moral message about truth and greed, but is far less satisfying than the 2017 original. It starts off in impressive form with the young Diana (Lilly Aspell) competing against older Amazonian warriors in a contest on Themyscira, only to be disqualified for ‘cheating’ by taking a short cut to her objective and, as aunt Antiope (Robin Wright, explains, not following the rule of truth, then shifts to 1984 Washington as the now grown Diana (Gal Godot) makes one of her anonymous appearances, clad in her distinctive red, blue and gold costume with her golden lasso of truth, foiling a jewellery store heist.
As it turns out, the thieves were actually after the shop’s back market artefacts which, recovered by the FBI are taken to the Smithsonian where, in her civilian identity, Diana Prince works. Here she meets new employee Dr Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), a socially awkward, nerdy anthropologist/geologist wallflower whom she befriends and who is assigned the job of identifying her objects. One in particular catches Diana’s attention, a quartz-shaped gemstone that, infused with the power of the Old Gods, can reputedly grant wishes. The only wish Diana has is that her pilot boyfriend from WWII, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), hadn’t died when he sacrificed himself in the first film. And what do you know, attending a lavish function, she approached by some handsome mystery man whose body, she’s astonished to learn, has been occupied by Stevem although she’s the only one who sees him as such. All is wonderful. Except, of course, it isn’t.
She’s not the only one to have wished upon the gem. Minerva has wishedshe could be more like Diana; she meant in terms of confidence and grace, unaware that, wish granted, it also comes with superpowers. More crucially, there’s Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), who, promising “ everything you’ve always wanted” in his TV ads is actually con artist with bad hair operating a company called Black Gold that turns out to not have the oil promised its investors and is on the verge of collapse. He’s been chasing the Dream Stone for years and, as the museum’s latest sponsor, has persuaded the besotted Minerva to loan it to him during a fundraiser, whereupon, clearly a big subscriber to the greed is good theory, wishes he himself was the gem, appealing to others’ basic instincts and granting their wishes, from Saudi Arabia to the White House, in return for taking on their wealth, power, etc., to become the master of the world he has promised his young son he will be.
A villain empowered by a magic wish-granting object is a cheesy comic book plot device more appropriate to fairytales (or indeed the horror story The Monkey’s Paw) and, while the be careful what you wish for as it comes at a cost message is relentlessly hammered home as both Minerva and the egomaniacal,Trumpian Lord become transformed for the worse, she taking brutal revenge on a drunk who harassed her earlier and later becoming villainess The Cheetah, and, in the latter’s case, with devastating consequences that, in granting the Reagan-esque President’s wish for more nukes, could cause the end of the world (unless, of course, certain sacrifices are made for the greater good as in the previous film).
There’s some amusing comic fish out of water scenes as Steve adjusts to the technology and fashions of the 80s, the introduction of the comic book’s invisible jet and some breathtaking action set pieces such as an increasingly depowered Diana, vulnerable to being wounded in a road chase with armoured cars in the Egyptian desert, an a couple of showdowns with Minerva, one in the White House in which she does not come off well, and one, rather more ho hum, clad in golden armour from Amazon history. But, while Gadot remains a perfect choice as Wonder Woman (who, of course, is never referred to as such in either film) and the chemistry between her and Pine is palpable, both Wiig and Pascal both ramp up the scenery chewing performances (though, to be fair, she’s not as foamingly over the top as he is), the film with its often clunky dialogue rarely makes a strong emotional connection (though it does all, ultimately, pivot on a parent’s love for their child) and, shoehorned inbetween lengthy character-based scenes, the excitement is, at disappointingly intermittent.
Given the current climate, the message about light triumphing over the dark is certainly welcome and uplifting, as is the moral about being true to yourself and putting those around you first, and, dedicated fans of the character should hang around for a not entirely surprising mid end credits cameo, but, while entertaining enough the screenplay’s sense of actual wonder is somewhat thin on the ground. 151 mins.
Amazon Prime, CHILI, Google Play, iTunes, Rakuten, Sky Store
Black Beauty (PG)
Written in 1877 by British author Anna Sewell under the title Black Beauty: His Grooms and Companions, the Autobiography of a Horse, originally intended for adults but now one of the top ten children’s novels, the anthropomorphic story has seen many screen adaptations. The latest shifts the setting from Victorian England to the contemporary American West and gives the mustang gender makeover, but retains the book’s horse’s-eye-view narration, the voiceover provided by Kate Winslet.
Told in flashback, it follows the horse from its years as a foal, roaming the plains with her mother before her curiosity leads to the herd being rounded up by rustlers, her mother never seen again, and kept in a shabby corral, eventually her being sold to New York horse whisperer John Manly (Iain Glen), who runs the financially struggling Birtwick Stables. He struggles to break her, but he has another wilful problem on his hands in the form of his moody, orphaned teenaged niece Jo (Mackenzie Foy), who isn’t thrilled at being dumped with an uncle she barely knows.
Inevitably, where Manly fails, Jo bonds with the horse over their shared loss and broken spirit, who she names Beauty, the pair sharing each other’s company before an accidental fire burns down the stables, throwing the ranch’s future and that of Beauty into doubt. A deal is struck whereby Jo will work for her uncle’s boss, to earn the money to buy the horse, but then Georgina (Fern Deacon), the cruel, snotty daughter of the upper class Winthorp family, chooses Beauty to be leased to her. Manly persuades them to allow Jo become their tenant and work with the horses, where she falls Georgina’s kindly older brother George (Calam Lynch), much to his snobbish mother’s (Claire Forlani) disapproval and Beauty finds her friend Ginger is now George’s horse.
As the story continues, following an incident at the estate gymkhana and with Birtwick closing down, Beauty ends up being sold before Jo can say goodbye, and the film limps through Beauty’s subsequent life, working first for a ranger on his rescue missions, then for a farmer as his workhorse, then a kindly carriage driver in New York where she again meets Ginger and, finally, another carriage company which illegally sells the horses before, eventually, she and Jo are reunited, the stables are successfully rebuilt and Jo and George work as a married couple rehabilitating horses.
It’s a warm, happy ever after ending, but unfortunately much of everything that proceeds it is dramatically flat, taking forever to get to Beauty’s post-Jo adventures which are perfunctorily and quickly cantered through. The messages about family, friendship, loyalty and being kind to animals are clearly spelled out and there’s some tender scenes between horse and girl, but it never really gets beyond a gentle trot as it moves from one episode to another while the low key performances rarely summon the necessary spark. It looks nice and its target audience of equine-loving young girls will be satisfied, but a little of Beauty’s self-described wild spirit wouldn’t have gone amiss. 110 mins
The Spongebob Movie – Sponge On The Run (U)
Bypassing cinemas to go straight to streaming and download platforms, the third Squarepants movie finds the irrepressible SpongeBob (Tim Kenny) living happily in Bikini Bottom with his pet snail Gary, hanging out with bozo starfish pal Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke) and working alongside grumpy octopus neighbour Squidward (Rodger Bumpass), serving up crab patties for Mr Krabs (Clancy Brown) and the Krusty Krab.
However, tyrannical ocean ruler Poseidon (Matt Berry), who live in the garish Lost City of Atlantic City, needs snail slime to keep his green skin soft and supple – and he’s just used up his last one. So, looking to finally get his hands on Mr Krab’s secret formula and realising SpongeBob is the cause of all his failures, Plankton (Mr. Lawrence) snailnaps Gary, prompting SpongeBob and Patrick to set off to find him in a cantankerously self-willed vehicle invented by squirrel Sandy Cheeks (Carolyn Lawrence), winding up with them as Poseidon’s prisoners and facing public spectacle execution. Which, of course, is when their friends pile in to the rescue.
Featuring assorted flashbacks recounting how the friends all first met each other, like the previous films it mixes animation with live action cameos, here Snoop Dog who gets to do his thing during a Wild West dream sequence zombie dance routine in a cowboy saloon run by El Diablo (Danny Trejo) and an inspired appearance by Keanu Reeves dispensing generally unheeded wisdom and advice as Sage from inside a tumbling tumbleweed.
Exploding with colour, it is, of course, incredibly silly, but also very funny and packed with sly throwaway jokes with everyone (the voice cast also includes Awkwafina) clearly having a great time and, of course, an upbeat message about the importance of friends and finding our inner courage, entertaining the kiddies while ensuring chuckles for the grown-ups too. 95 mins
The Witches (PG)
Thirty years on since Anjelica Houston vamped her way through Jim Henson’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s tale, co-written by fantasy horror supremo Guillermo del Toro and Back To The Future director Roger Zemeckis, this casts its own remake spell, staying faithful to the book but injecting a couple of new spins. This time round, set in late 60s Alabama, the unnamed ‘hero boy’ orphaned in a car crash is a young African-American (Jahzir Kadeem Bruno), who goes to live with his grandma Agatha (Octavia Spencer) who plays and dances along to Motown hits to try and cheer him up and also tells him stories about witches, who loathe children, have no toes, claws not hands and are bald, including how, as a child, her best friend was turned into chicken.
Her grandson having encountered a witch in a supermarket, the pair take off to a plush seaside hotel for “rich white people,” (Stanley Tucci more restrained as the manager played by Rowan Atkinson in the original) only to find it’s hosting a convention by The Society For The Prevention Of Cruelty To Children, a cover for a witches’ gathering where the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) reveals her plan to doctor sweets with a potion that will turn children into “miiiiiiice” so they can squish them. Hiding under the stage with his pet mouse, Daisy, the boy is witness to this and sees chubby greedy Bruno (Codie-Lei Eastick) transformed before he himself is sniffed out and suffers a similar fate. Managing to escape with the help of Daisy (Kristin Chenoweth) who turns out to be another victim, the trio now have to get to Agatha, who is a healer with her own potions, so that, together, they can find a way of stopping the dastardly plan.
Bookended by narration by the now older rodent boy (Chris Rock) telling the tale to a group of kids, it’s a fast-paced romp that makes excellent use of prosthetics and CGI as a gleefully over-the-top Hathaway hovers in the air and has her face distort into a Joker-like grin while speaking in an accent that mangles German and Scottish together.
At times genuinely scary for younger viewers with witches exploding and the three mice running through the hotel vents trying to escape the Grand High Witch’s ever extending arms, unlike the previous film it also sticks to Dahl’s bittersweet ending about inevitable mortality, but adds a montage of their America-hopping witch hunts, this is gleeful frightening fun. 106 mins
Amazon Prime, Sky,Virgin Movies
The Secret Garden (PG)
The seventh big screen adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 English children’s literature classic, screenwriter Jack Thorne (who adapted His Dark Materials) expanding the backstory and delivers a more dramatic climax, but this still feels a bit of a charmless slog, the characters overshadowed by the visual effects, and the performances often feeling like a throwback to the days of the Children’s Film Foundation.
Opening with a prologue set in India on the eve of partition, her parents dead and abandoned by the servants, 10-year-old Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx, recently seen in Summerland) finds herself shipped off to England become the ward of her hunchback uncle, Archibald Craven (Colin Firth with a very annoying floppy fringe), the cold, no-nonsense widower of her mother’s sister, at Misselthwaite Manor, is brooding estate on the Yorkshire Moors, and under the strict supervision of joyless housekeeper Mrs. Medlock (Julie Walters).
Initially something of a brat with a sense of entitlement, Mary eventually makes friend with the ethnic housemaid Martha (Isis Davis) and, while playing outdoors, encounters a Yorkshire terrier she names Jemimah, and discovers a hidden garden behind overgrown walls. In turn, she chums up with Martha’s wild-haired younger brother, Dickon (Amir Wilson), who she takes into the garden where a friendly robin leads her to the location of a hidden key.
Meanwhile, ignoring instructions to remain in her part of the house, she’s also discovered Colin (Edan Hayhurst), her equally spoiled and bossy cousin who has been confined to bed by his father, who rarely visits him, and is apparently unable to walk on account of some genetic spinal condition. Suffice to say, they gradually become friend and she and Dickon secretly wheel him out of the house into the garden, where its restorative powers do their business.
The garden of course, has its own secret, as this was the favourite spot for the two sisters and their youngsters, and where Colin’s mother died, his grief-struck fathers sealing it up and subsequently locking way any memories of his wife, his son included.
A film about grief, healing, friendship, family and the power of nature, it’s visually strikingly impressive and colourful, the William Morris-style floral design of the wallpaper in Mary’s shadowy room (which secretly adjoins that of her late aunt) patently foreshadowing the real thing later and also prompting one of several, rather jarring, flights into her imagination. The introduction of the ghosts of both Colin’s mother Grace (Jemma Powell) and her sister Alice (Maeve Dermody), who also figures ignoring her daughter in several flashbacks does little to enhance to narrative or evoke the emotions intended.
Egerickx is engagingly energetic and charismatic, even when being petulantly privileged, so it’s unfortunate her fellow child actors are so flat and dull, while Walters rarely registers as more than a dour cameo and Firth, despite saving grace final moment of epiphany, is all one note and lacking his usual spark. Nice flowers though. 99 mins
You can only watch this latest Disney live-action remake on a home device, but even so, magnificently directed by Niki Caro, its spectacle and majesty shine through.
Working from the 1998 animation as well as the Hua Mulan legend on which that was based, but minus the song and, thankfully, the sidekick dragon (though there is an ever-present phoenix, the family’s totem, climaxing in a particularly striking visual moment), it opens with the young Mulan (Crystal Rao), living with her younger sister Xiu (Elena Askin), flapping mother (Rosalind Chao) and lame war hero father (Tzi Mah), practising her martial arts skills much to dad’s pride and mum’s annoyance who reckons she should act like other girls and bring honour to the family as a dutiful wife.
Fast forward several years as the now teen Mulan (Liu Yifei) unintentionally causes havoc as the village matchmaker is trying to teach her grace and deportment, at which point an emissary from the Emperor (Jet Li) arrives to inform that each family must supply one man to join the army in fighting against the marauding Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) who, abetted by a powerful shape-shifting witch (Gong Li) is laying waste the country in revenge for the death of his father at the Emperor’s hands.
Having no son, despite his injured leg and failing health, Mulan’s father offers himself as a recruit. However, fearing for his life, she steals his sacred sword and armour and, disguising herself as a boy, rides off to join the Imperial Army under the name of Hua Jun. Then, following an assortment of impressive combat training scenes and her determined efforts to not be revealed as a girl (the punishment for which would be death or, at best disgrace), as Khan sweeps all before him, the film builds to its exciting climax as she finally casts off her disguise, accepts her true self and becomes the legendary warrior who saves the Emperor and China.
Her first leading role in a major film, Liu is the film’s heart and soul, struggling with the deception she is practising but also tapping into her inner chi to become the warrior events need, the moment she emerges from the mist, her hair let down and flowing, is a breathtaking scene. She’s well served by an impressive support cast too, headed up by Donnie Yen as the high ranking Commander Tung, her cadre of fellow soldiers (and often comic support), the hapless Cricket, Ling, Yao, Chien-Po and, most importantly Chen Honghui (Yoson An) who serves as Mulan’s eventual ally and romantic interest. Lee makes for a powerful, driven and resourceful villain while Gong Li shines as the ambiguous sorceress – and Mulan’s dark counterpart who seeks to have her join forces – whose motivations underpin the film’s misogynistic themes of men’s fear and suppression of powerful women.
Glowing with an emotional depth to match its electrifying combat scenes, which involve twirling in mid-air, running up walls and other acrobatic feats, it’s an exhilarating and involving spectacle likely to induce cheers in the living room demanding that you see it on the biggest screen going at the earliest opportunity. 115 mins
Not all 12A films are appropriate for younger children. Let’s Go With The Children offers a guide to what’s suitable for family viewing.